Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Human Problem

It’s not Climate Change, or AIDS, or Oil that’s the problem

6.5 billion may seem like a small number. 6.5 after all isn’t much. It sounds like a tall person. The human population of planet Earth should probably be written like so:

6 500 000 000

On paper it still fits comfortably into one sentence. But that number of human beings doesn’t fit into any sustainable systems anywhere. They do incredible damage every day, and produce gargantuan quantities of waste. In fact, unlike other animals, every time human beings move, they pollute their environment. Every time they cook. Everything they do erodes the natural world of its resources. In fact right now, your reading this article on a computer screen, and me writing it – something that may seem particularly benign – is consuming resources.

I recently had an epiphany. I woke up one morning and in my mind I saw the whole of suburbia, and its octopus arms linking it to cities – I saw all of this from above as endless plastic blow-up versions of the real thing. Air was what connected, gave structure and life to these urban and suburban systems. Air is what maintained the integrity and shape of these developments. Each road was an inflated arm, bulging with air. Each house, a plastic box of air. And the city the tall and wobbly jumping castle, with engines everywhere, pumping air into it. A LOT of air, all the time. And the air is obviously a metaphor for oil. See, everything around us, every trip we take, every time we go to the store or turn on the lights, every spoonful of Cornflakes is predicated on cheap fossil fuels. Since the ENTIRE system runs on air, including our food and lighting, and how we get around, it means if those engines break down, or somewhere suffers a puncture, (an analogy for diminished capacity) the entire system will begin to fold. And what we’re seeing is incredible demand growth in places like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, while the USA consumes 24 million barrels of oil A DAY. The pressure is on to maintain an even flow. What we’re not facing is that supply – whatever it is doing now (and many believe we hit Peak 11 months ago) – is not infinite. At the rate we’re going, we’ll be lucky to get through to the next decade without having to adjust our lifestyles A LOT.

And here’s where The Human Problem comes into focus. The lifestyles of human beings are geared towards consumption. Consumption was once the name of a plague and it remains accurate for what Human Beings now represent to the planet. Consumption literally means: ‘burning up’. If you drive past Sasolburg (in South Africa) or any other refinery, you will see that day and night, fires burn and flare brightly at the top of incredibly high chimneys. Those are the planet’s energy reservoirs that are being tapped, transformed and transferred eventually to us as lights in the bedroom, or the plastic in the remote control in our hands. But if there is no refinery near you, you can still imagine those fires being burned every day by you, each time you turn on the ignition of your car, whenever you open the refrigerator, or turn on hot water.

The number of people who are buying cars, and appliances, to fill new homes increases every minute, each day, year after year. Meanwhile, the reservoirs of oil (the biggest are 50 years old) aren’t going anywhere.

And then there is you and me. Most people I know are having children and people are having children simply because THAT’S WHAT PEOPLE DO. In South Africa there are 55 000* rapes (reported) a year. Just under 5000 cases of child neglect (reported) a year. There are almost 40 000 murders and attempted murders combined, and common assault (including with grievous bodily harm) is a staggering 454 500 cases a year. I don’t know about you, but in a country of 47 million people, that’s a lot of people getting hurt. In the USA 32 000 people shoot each other to death each year. In South Africa, 14 000 drive each other to death. A cyclist dies every day on our roads. And in these circumstances, we want to have children because we want to have children.

Now these statistics say something very interesting about The Human Problem. First it describes a schizophrenic approach by entire populations, entire nations, to the sort of statistics that we’d describe in the past as a War. Now there is a War on Terror, a War on Poverty, a War on Drugs, but in the end, there isn’t really an on-the-ground sense of respect, and value for human life. Secondly the statistics describe the human race as having become delusional. Delusional because we are so desensitized to what is happening to people just like us. It’s as though we don’t realize that what vwe read in a newspoaper or see on television is real. And we don’t because people are essentially living disconnected, dysfunctional lives. How can I say that? Because while all this bloodshed is going on, what do we focus on? We value are our entertainments, and conveniences. We’ve gotten used to them, we feel entitled to them, and we feel we own them, but actually they own us, and that’s our lives. Our lives are the pursuit of things, and the frustration, envying and admiration of one another and ourselves pursuing things. We want to watch our TV, eat what we want, wear what we want, and have what we want. That’s what we’ve decided is important. People are important, but as a concept.

Unfortunately you can only function in such a delusional framework for so long. One of the reasons the crime statistics are so horrific in South Africa is because we’re seeing constant messages saying: consume, and do so conspicuously. The messages reinforce the idea that who you are depends on what you have (what you consume). A lot of crime in South Africa for example, is not based on food (on survival), but on stealing phones and brands, and on ego and esteem related criminal activity. People aren’t stealing daily bread, they’re trying to get their hands on women, drugs and alcohol. Their sickness is one of the spirit, and it gets worse the closer the poor are to the rich. It’s this basic inequality that fuels powerful resentments. The response is that the rich build bigger walls, but the criminals simply have to become even more aggressive, and determined, and they have.

Status and worth are evaluated now by our ability to consume and by our level of consumption. The more you consume, the more the remaining 6.499 billion want to be like you. That’s a bizarre self fulfilling cycle, and the road towards infinite consumption ends in poverty and degradation for all. In fact, given the evidence for just our Energy Predicament, people who are used to convenience, used to burgers and TV, will not function or adapt well in the years to come. Do you think you’d make a good farmhand? I don’t think so either. I am one of the few that expect the Energy Shock to be a hard and sudden landing; like a huge Tsunami-like wave, crashing over everyone. And if it seems that now is the most unlikely time for collapses of any kind, that’s no mistake. Peak Energy (which means the maximum production of energy our planet can ever produce – from fossil fuels) is where we are right now. It feels right. The markets are screaming. Records are tumbling. But at the same time, we’ve reached the top of the trapeze. The applause is at its maximum. The sun is at high noon. From here, the weather, economics, down to our very lifestyles, are by stages, going to become altogether more difficult. The vital point to emphasize is that once we’re past Peak, growth is not only impossible, it’s Over. The world will contract, globalization will reverse, local industries will have to be rejuvenated, especially farming.

Very few people seem to grasp the Energy Paradigm in which we are in. More people are awakening to Climate Change, simply because it is increasingly apparent EVERYWHERE. By the end of this century for example, Germany may have only one ski resort left. Recently, Jean-Baptiste Piggin** observed that even snow cannons couldn’t be used this winter (in the Alps), because at the very least, the temperature has to be around freezing for them to work. Temperatures even at night were not low enough this winter for the snow cannons to work. And snow cannons are one of those energy intensive by-products we turn to when the climate isn’t how we want it. Air conditioners, refrigerators and heaters are another. Of course, as the Energy Predicament sets in, these demands will intensify and of course, the last thing anyone can afford during an Energy Crisis is still further increases in demand. But there will be.

Probably the best way to begin to approach The Human Problem is for each person to examine and change themselves. Follow the example of Blogs like No Impact Man. But I know by now that no one changes if just you ask them to. An intellectual approach seldom gains more than a handful of converts. I understand that. It’s laziness. People seldom do what they should do. In the end we will be forced to make massive collective changes in the near future, but it will require more than just co-operation. Many initiatives will start off far too late, and having exceeded capacity for so long, The Human Problem will play out with the massive culling of our kind. Already the forces (Terrorism, Nuclear War, Pandemics, Lack of Resources, Climate Catastrophes) are gathering for that storm. We have gotten used to the world without war. The last century had two, and now we’re way overdue. We’re here, here where we are, as the result of years and years of unconscious greed and consumption. When we regain consciousness, we will see once again, and much to late that our worst enemies have always been ourselves.

*Crime and punishment – Beyond the iron fist, by Brendan Boyle, May 6, 2007, News and Opinion, Sunday Times
**Snow Free – Global Warming is threatening the ski slopes of Europe, May 6, 2007 Sunday Times

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